Sandy Rosenthal is an activist and author who lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. She previously worked in the field of marketing/copy writing but left that career behind to create Leeves.org, a non-profit organization with the goal of educating individuals on why the levees broke in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Sandy founded this organization with her son, Stanford, and also holds the position of president within the non-profit.
Sandy graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a Bachelor of Arts degree and soon after that, graduated from Tulane University with a Master of Business Administration degree. She has also received a certificate from the Nancy Marsiglia Institute of Justice. Sandy has earned over a dozen awards and honors including “Outstanding Social Entrepreneur of the Year” from Tulane University and “Most Influential Woman” from Mount Holyoke College.
Like many others who call New Orleans home, you experienced Hurricane Katrina and the devastating aftermath firsthand. Other than the defective levee systems, what is something you wish everyone knew about the event that you feel the news media did not properly cover?
In the chaotic aftermath, the reporting by major media was lax and irresponsible. Accounts portrayed the New Orleans people as basically irresponsible or thugs. This further wounded an already suffering population. A 2006 Congressional hearing soundly criticized this early poor reporting saying: “skepticism and fact checking are easier when the sea is calm, but more vital when it is not.”
What gave you the strength and drive to step up and speak about the faulty levee system and the harm it caused?
My strength came from my inner calm and understanding that a million people’s lives were turned upside down due to the federal government’s mistakes. The survivors deserved my fight.
At what point did you decide to put pen to paper and write this story? Had you always planned to share your story this way?
A trusted advisor suggested that I write my book because, in his words, no one else could write it. And the story needed to be told, he said. That was July 2013. I started writing in October 2013 and finished August 2018. No, I definitely did not ever plan to write a book because, seriously, I am not a writer!
What was your writing process like? How did you organize all of the data and stories to all fit together so cohesively?
I began spending every day for two solid months, writing a timeline of events. (That process was like finding a stash of photographs that I hadn’t seen in 30 years.) My book is written almost like a diary, but there’s tension throughout, be it eating melting ice cream or struggling against a deadline or finding a ton of hate mail in my inbox.
What was the most challenging part of writing Words Whispered in Water: Why the Levees Broke in Hurricane Katrina?
For me, finding a copy editor was difficult. My first editor died suddenly of a heart attack. My second editor mysteriously left town, mid-contract, six weeks after we began working. Eventually I found an editor online, whom I’ve never met in person, but who did a wonderful job. Her name is Joanne Shwed.
You are also the founder and president of the non-profit Leeves.org, what was your main objective when you created this organization and do you feel that you have reached this objective in the 15 years it has been active?
The mission of Levees.org is education that the flooding of New Orleans was due to civil engineering mistakes by the federal government, specifically, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The mission was substantially fulfilled in 2015 when a watershed journal article, that my organization convened and managed, was published by Water Policy- the official journal of the World Water Council.
Who inspires you the most professionally? Is there anyone in or out of the writing world who has helped your writing career in one-way or the other?
The answer is Ken McCarthy, the very same advisor who recommended that I write a book. Ken is a genius at understanding what can and/or must be done to get traction and to get attention be it a cause, an issue or selling a project. When Mr. McCarthy said I needed to write a book, I believed he must be correct.
What do you hope the main takeaway will be for those who read your book?
The power of a single person is alive and well. And it’s there in all of us, just waiting to be tapped.
Rapid Fire Questions:
Favorite place in the world? Aix en Provence, France
Go to coffee order? Decaf iced coffee
Summer or winter? Summer!
Pancakes or waffles? Blueberry pancakes
Last book you read? The Yellow House by Sarah Broome
Why the Levees Broke in Hurricane Katrina
It’s a horror story, a mystery, and David and Goliath story all in one. In 2005, the entire world watched as a major U.S. city was nearly wiped off the map. The levees ruptured and New Orleans drowned. But while newscasters attributed the New Orleans flood to “natural catastrophes” and other types of disasters, citizen investigator Sandy Rosenthal set out to expose the true culprit and compel the media and government to tell the truth. This is her story.